Oh, San Francisco…
“If you see this man, do not talk to him or give him any money.”
The flyer is taped to the vacuum cleaner hose machine I’m waiting for at the self car wash on the corner of 10th and Harrison.
There’s a photo on the flyer. It’s of a man with a half-smile and bloodshot eyes whimsically looking upward. The photo is such a close-up portrait, he was clearly posing for it.
Sure enough, I turn around to make sure: This is the same man frantically taking a squeegee to my car windows after hearing me say no thanks.
His eyes are still whimsical in person. They also say “I have nothing but time and nothing to lose.”
I make sure I have some cash in my pocket.
“Don’t worry about the wheels, my man. I like them dirty.”
He doesn’t stop.
I hand him $3. He takes it and keeps scrubbing.
My car is grey. When the chrome rims are dirty, they match the paint job.
I get into the car. The scrubbing continues.
I start the engine. He doesn’t flinch.
It isn’t until I start driving away that he moves on to the Ford Expedition in the next stall. No ceremony, just moving on.
My car is a charcoal grey Saab 900. When I got here 20 minutes ago, it looked like a dalmatian because of the perfect smattering of white bird shit all over the roof and hood.
Now, as I drive to my massage studio, it’s pure, shiny charcoal grey again. With two wheels filthy and two in chrome so gleaming it hurts your eyes.
And now, the touching
Back in my massage studio, I get ready for my first client of the day. It’s going to be Patrick, probably my most loyal (meaning frequent) client — a mysteriously wealthy man with impeccable manners and a perfect physique who comes in for a 120-minute massage so regularly that he is single-handedly paying my San Francisco rent.
It sounds like a match made in heaven. It kind of is — San Francisco rent is high, and for my rent to be paid by one single person wearing a corduroy blazer with suede patches on the elbows, that’s pretty nice. He gets excellent bodywork, I get a roof, everybody wins.
Where it gets weird is the gifts.
Patrick brings me bouquets of fresh lavender. Fresh kumquats the size of golf balls. Fresh figs larger than way-oversized kumquats. And he hands them to me like they’re chocolates on a first date. When it comes to massage, I’m 100% available for Patrick. But when he wants to take me home, I’m forever out to lunch.
It’s a hard role I have to play: the giver who must hold back.
Making clients feel good is second nature for me. Iron their muscles like high-thread-count bedsheets. Stretch their frames back to states of peak function. Caress their necks like they’re babies and I’m the mother with unlimited love. But then they pull on me a little too hard and I have to let go of the rope.
Theo comes in next. He’s the client covered from collarbone to ankle in tattoos that look like a full-blown DMT vision in constant motion — a swirling, heaving, undulating cauldron of monstrous characters, bulging waves, crackling flames, gooey rivers, mechanical legs, and mighty tentacles. But not a drop of ink is generally visible to anyone — it’s all concealed behind clothing. Hands, feet, neck, face, clean as a choir boy. It isn’t until he gets massage sessions that his art gets to breathe, he mentions. For all I know, I’m the only person aware of his secret other than the tattoo artists that installed the secret.
He’s been coming in once a month for four months and talking to me a mile a minute the whole while. I feel like I can ask him now.
“So Theo, does your family know you’re covered in ink?”
“No. Nobody knows.”
A marked period of silence, then I press on.
“Do you want to tell anyone? Do you think they’d … um … mind?”
I sputter the questions out with an innocent naivety devoid of any calculated eloquence. He’s naked and vulnerable, so I suppose I can talk to him from the perspective of 11-year-old me. 11-year-old me likes this color-drenched character and wants to be friends.
I must have struck a chord with that last question, because following his clipped “um, I don’t know” the room goes silent for the rest of the session. As silent as a defunct tennis court floating in outer space.
11 is a weird age. Wedged between the frailty of childhood and the brutal discomfort of puberty, 11-year-olds roam around in a constant state of vulnerability. One unfortunate social exchange — say, a friend walking away when you want them to validate you — can solidify as an unanswered question that remains a hole in the psyche for decades.
My workday concludes with a session on Morgan, the triathlete.
I don’t know how fashionable it is to admit this, what with being a man amidst the current climate of newly empowered warriors battling against the rampant patriarchy that’s been unchecked for hundreds of years. But the truth is, I am a human being who finds some other human beings sexy. And when a triathlete comes in, not only does time move effortlessly because I’m working on a body that looks like all the anatomical charts I studied in massage school. But the thing is this: Morgan’s body is drop-dead sexy. It pulls my strings, and time pretty much flies out the window in the form of a brick that hits the fire hydrant outside with a clink.
“Thanks, Morgan. See you soon. Good luck in the … um … triathlon.”
Steam wafting off both of our heads, Morgan leaves.
I sit here in the studio finally alone, and I scan my body to take inventory of myself after 4.5 hours of veritable energetic intercourse with — for most intents and purposes — veritable strangers.
I’m dazed, and I feel swelling around my throat like I want to yell something.
It’s pretty clear: I want to marry Morgan.
I feel a void in my chest where the 11-year-old me had an odd exchange with Theo. As his massage therapist, I’m afforded the license to reach towards him as he beckons me in. That is, at least with my hands, elbows, and ears. For when I opened my mouth today, I reached too far and he turned around.
I feel a stirring in my gut. There’s an unspoken bond between Patrick and me. Other than the perfect symbiosis of our professional relationship, I have the power of seeing him metaphorically naked and vulnerable, showering me with gifts because he has a crush on me.
I see him literally naked and vulnerable too, so things are extra deep.
I spend so much time making clients feel good, I consider myself a born giver. But the deeper we go, the longer these relationships develop, new boundaries keep appearing.
In the end, sometimes I feel like I’ve won and lost a tug of war while having a limb cut off before being thrown into a vat of warm crème fraîche and strawberries.
Like I’m positioned between a barbed wire fence and a brick wall, but it’s simultaneously sunny and snowing — and the snowflakes are made of chocolate.
Or something like that.
“The miners came in ’49, the whores in ‘51.”
Calling that old gold-rush adage a parallel to today’s climate of human connection in San Francisco might be a stretch, mostly because I don’t consider massage therapy akin to prostitution. But there’s always been a legacy here in San Francisco: people come and fill their wallets but then face a shortage of intimacy.
This particular void can give birth to marvelous, strange phenomena. Back then, when San Francisco’s population was something like 95% male, it laid the groundwork for this little, windswept peninsula to nurture an acceptance of almost-prototypical trans people — generally burly, bearded men donning lace-fringed gowns to balance out the butch quotient and heroically receiving the pent-up testosterone of their entrepreneurial brothers.
And here in present-day San Francisco, where the tech boom has created a mountain of riches atop which the weather is just fucking freezing, my heroic warmth gets my rent paid, gets my oversized fig needs met for years, and gets my own yearning 11-year-old heart some something — whether it’s love, attention, appreciation, a sense of balance, I’m not sure.
I just wish it were simpler. The better I make clients feel, either the more they want to date me or they just run away screaming.
Back in the studio
I’m working on Patrick again. He’s a bit too old to be part of the tech wave, so I wonder what his story is. If I worked at a deli and were making him a pastrami sandwich, I’d have a few minutes to say something stupid like “so, how’s life?”
If I were a banker, I’d know right away where his money came from.
If I were his hairstylist, I could ask him any number of questions for 30–45 minutes, ranging in intensity from topical like the weather to intimate like how often he has sex, with whom, and using what type of lubricant, if any.
Hairdressers seem to tend towards such topics. I usually find it tedious because I’m not much of a talker and want to concentrate on watching the stainless steel craft taking place atop my very own skull. But in college, I had an outlandish, tall black trans hairdresser who gave me excellent haircuts every three weeks and at one point lured me into an (entirely consensual) consultation to have my balls waxed one day in the not so distant future. I dropped out of school before our rendezvous ever occurred.
Alas, I don’t have much verbal interaction with Patrick. But our connection is still deep. As deep as my elbow in his piriformis muscle, as deep as the wide-legged stretch I have his body in, and as deep as his labored breathing which I’m now noticing almost makes the room rumble.
The position he’s in, I learned it in massage school. It’s called frog, because it resembles a frog’s leg. Picture someone face down, knee bent 90 degrees and splayed out to the side, hip open. Other than giving me an excellent angle from which to do some serious deep tissue work on the rotator muscles, it leaves the client’s body pretty open in the pelvic floor region. That’s layman’s terms for saying Patrick’s butthole and the back of his balls are beaming towards the ceiling.
And here we have the beauty of things!
This man is filthy rich, very attractive, mysterious, and poised to glide through life the subject of envy. And now I have him sprawled out in the most vulnerable position, groaning like a puppy dog. Our connection is exquisite, almost holy, a fine balance of give and take, push and pull, defined by a sense of unspoken nuance so delicate it’s something of a miracle in itself, 120 self-contained minutes of power and reverence and beauty.
As I pull Patrick’s leg back to a straight position, he tightens then shudders oddly and lets out some defeated groan. It’s unlike anything I’m used to in this context.
“Are you ok, Patrick?”
“I .. um ..”
“I accidentally made a mess.”
He ejaculated on the massage table.
Cognizant that he’s in a vulnerable state, I make it my foremost duty to downplay this situation.
“Oh! Ha. No problem at all. This happens all the time.”
This is the first time this has happened.
“I accidentally ejaculate on a regular basis! Everyone does.”
Lies. But I’m here to serve.
“Here’s a towel. You can tuck it underneath you, and I’ll finish your other side. And really, don’t worry about it.”
The truth is I’m a bit shocked. And I feel like something has been shattered.
My nurturing self has nothing but understanding and compassion. But my gut wants nothing but distance.
The session ends eventually, tedious and stained and labored.
I suppose it’s no huge surprise that I never hear from Patrick again. He ghosts me. Probably because he felt sexually ghosted by me, his strictly-therapeutic massage therapist.
I ponder the memories. We had a bond. It was exquisite, like a wine glass. Evidently so delicate it shattered from the weight of the wine. I feel sad. But I’m able to lean into the healthy sense of boundary I maintain as a professional massage therapist.
Days later, I’m in the studio again.
Morgan is back.
Morgan. My favorite client. Morgan.
I am lit up like the top of Luxor pyramid in Las Vegas. Bright and beaming. Story is, you can see that light from the moon.
“How’s the pressure, Morgan?”
“Perfect. This feels amazing.”
The massage is in its first thirty minutes and steadily unfolding. I glide up and down the table like a dancer, light, and nimble.
Thirty minutes later, I am swooshing up and down Morgan’s body, from ankle to shoulder and back again, like a boomerang.
In the final thirty minutes, already supple muscles reduced to taffy, my wingspan stretches from Morgan’s occiput to heel, elongating the spine and gracing this specimen with perhaps another inch of height.
“And voila, there we go. How was it?”
“Ah. May. Zing.”
I stand triumphant, waiting for this dazed client to snap back to reality. I think about massage school ten years ago. I think about San Francisco and its yearning hearts. I think about Patrick from last week, gone in an instant after an oddly extraordinary session.
As I’m staring at the wall, I cock my head to one side and I think deeper: it’s a weird world, this massage thing. But again I’m so ready for it. A professional.
In a swift and sudden turn of events, Morgan and I are kissing.
To be more accurate, we are frantically making out.
Making out, panting, making out, panting, making out.
Grabbing each other’s heads, squeezing, pulling, gasping, making out, panting.
Steam wafts from our bodies and fills the room. It wafts upwards and in all lateral directions like a gorgeous plague intent with all urgency to reach absolutely everything around. It covers the room’s every surface with a thick layer of moisture. The walls, the window, the plants, the blinds, the crown molding, all glistening.
The room is a sauna. I can’t see anything, just odd shapes in an inferno of thick, vaporized sweat. A blur of ethereal white, fleshy tan, bits of dark brown, all floating and flailing.
The cycle continues, making out, panting, gasping for air and almost wrestling. With every second, the steam builds up and the moisture begins to coalesce into actual droplets of hot, salty liquid.
A drop forms on the ceiling above. It grows and grows, heavier each moment, and begins to fall. Ripping itself from the sticky ceiling, it plummets with the speed of a down feather towards my face, ferocious and yet so slow I am able to watch it with awe.
The furniture is sliding around. It’s thick, dreamy chaos.
The room is moving in slow motion like we’re in the midst of an underwater earthquake. It’s a nascent inferno, salty limbs akimbo, and I stare at this drop of liquid falling towards my face.
It’s one second that feels like a hundred years.
A hundred years that go by in a flash.
The drop lands on my right cheek, about a quarter inch from my lips, where it splatters. I can taste it. I’m stunned.
“I love you!”
That’s what Morgan just said.
So if I’m not mistaken, Morgan just said:”I love you.”
Morgan who I lust over but is already married.
It’s like looking up and seeing a snow leopard leaping through the air from nowhere, blowing you a kiss before scampering off and retreating to its native habitat 7,400 miles away, leaving you reeling.
It was an urgent whisper. Blink and you miss it.
I want to look twice to make sure. But you can’t look twice when something is uttered by a gorgeous triathlete once, possibly by accident.
As I’m pondering, half here and half not, there’s a loud explosion. It’s the fire hydrant outside. It burst and is spewing water at the building wall with monstrous force. I stare towards the window — though I can’t see anything through all the steam.
It snaps me back to reality. Here. Massage table. I love you.
Morgan is gone as quick as all this materialized. Probably already at home drinking an acaí smoothie.
The hydrant is shut off.
And I’m left here, in a daze, staring at my empty massage studio that’s dead quiet and perfectly still. The carpet sits heavy, the walls unmoving, the window a glimpse of the only lively thing around at the moment: the sound of the water outside draining out to the street. Moments later, that too subsides and it’s utter nothingness.
Like I said, I am still in a daze. But I feel like an old button that’s been pushed. A Russet potato baked to perfection.
And I’m still waiting for the massage studio to completely dry.
After the coming weeks and months, heart palpating like a butterfly, amidst odd text messages that never quite land, I never hear from Morgan again.
And Theo, my tattoo-covered pal? I never hear from Theo again either.
This essay was originally published on PS I Love You. Relationships Now.